Standalone Sunday Book Review: I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsey McCabe

Cover design:  Alison Forner

Publishing date: 01/2014

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about “distaff” soldiers during the Civil War and so when this book crossed my path, I jumped for it.

In the afterword, the author speaks about the inspiration for Rosetta, the girl soldier who follows her husband into the Union army. Many women followed husbands and family members into the fighting, despite strict Victorian gender politics, and the author borrowed some of their experiences to create the character and the narrative.  This lent the story a deeply authentic feel, as she also re-created the original Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s voice from her extant letters (see An Uncommon Soldier by Lauren Cook Burgess). For all that, the prose has a literary feel to it, evocative of the time and place.

The battle scenes are harrowing but over quickly. My own reading and researching into the Civil War have only just begun, but I’ve been to Antietam and have a vivid imagination. I appreciated the depth of the author’s research, well woven into the narrative.

Immersion into the character and her joys and misery worked well in the first person. I don’t usually care for the first person point of view, but the author knows how to handle this technique well, so we don’t feel like we’re on the character’s ego trip (I-I-I). The prose and narrative had the feel of a journal, and the author’s skill kept me close to the character of Rosetta.

The feelings I had as I read, beyond admiration for the author and for distaff soldiers, was of a nearly excruciating dread and anticipation. I think this mirrored the experience of the characters as they learned how to be soldiers, broken up by Rosetta’s domestic issues with her husband Jeremiah. There is a low thrum of tension here as they try to learn how to survive the military life, stay alive, and yet keep the feelings between them, the antidote to their fears about going to war, sweet and real.

There was also a much appreciated character of a gay soldier, a natural inclusion in a story about “uncommon soldiers.” Unacknowledged is more like.

The women who served and were found out, or later revealed themselves as female soldiers (as when some tried to get their pensions) weren’t always treated as heroes, but as loose women, etc.  Some peoples minds only go one way, and that’s too true for the American cousins of the English Victorians. (See also Dr. Mary Walker Wiki ).

The other, real Rosetta didn’t live to see the end of the war, contracting typhoid after the battle of Red River when she was with the Army of the Potomac. I’m glad the author gave her Rosetta a different ending.

I highly recommend this book for lovers of historical fiction.

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